Love Who You Love: Loyalty in A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE

Love Who You Love: Loyalty in A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE

A Man of No Importance at Music Theatre InternationalA MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, an intimate, chamber musical by longtime collaboratators Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Terrence McNally (RAGTIME), addresses a number of universal issues.  Friendship, the transformative power of art, and being honest about one's self are themes that mark the story of lonely bus conductor Alfie Byrne.  But the show - whose three writers are all of Irish descent - is ultimately about something intensely Irish: loyalty.  For the Irish, overwhelming loyalty to country, family, and religion is a way of life, and this resolve has been a part of the Irish pysche since the English first took control over the country.  This loyalty - one unflinching in the face of hardship - is seen throughout A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE.

The clearest case of loyalty in A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE is Lily's loyalty to her brother, Alfie.  Commiting herself to protecting him as a child, Lily does not shirk from her self-imposed duty, even though it's caused her to put her life on hold:

"I think of the times
We was both of us kids.
It was me who would stand up for you.
I'd beat anybody who'd
Pick on my brother.
I'd pummel 'em purple and blue!
But here I am now, looking after you still!
The girls say I'm out of my head,
And pity a woman
The burden of life
With a brother who's never been wed."

Faith Prince and Roger Rees are Lily and Alfie in the original production of A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE at Lincoln Center
Faith Prince and Roger Rees are Lily and Alfie in the original production of A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE at Lincoln Center

Despite numerous proposals from the butcher, Mr. Carney, Lily refuses to abandon Alfie.  Even though there's no reason to think Alfie couldn't function perfectly well by himself - he, not Lily, regularly cooks their meals, for example - Lily will not begin her own life until Alfie's is settled, which in her mind means a wife. Lily doesn't even leave Alfie when she realizes the reason he never married is because he's gay.  "Why did you never tell me?" she demands.  "You must have known I'd love you/All the same."  Lily's anger at Alfie's revelation doesn't come from who he is, but from Lily's misguided sacrifice.

Lily also demostrates loyalty towards Mr. Carney, and vice versa.  While it's unclear how long their unfulfilled love affair has gone on, it's apparent that Mr. Carney and Lily have planned to be married for years, perhaps decades.  Lily repeatedly promises to marry him once Alfie marries, and Mr. Carney has never given up to pursue someone more available. This dedication towards each other is fairly remarkable, particularly since it seems that Alfie has never been remotely close to dating a girl, let alone marrying one.

Two other characters display loyalty towards people beyond their reach.  James Michael O'Shea - generally known as "Baldy" - is one of the actors in Alfie's amateur theatre troupe.  While his wife had died some years before, Baldy visits her grave regularly and is still very much in love with her.  "Now, I'll be buttoning a shirt," he tells Alfie,

"Or in the middle of a shave,
Or especially puttin' flowers
On the headstone of her grave
And I'll think:
I've had a fine, contented life,
Having had my Mary for a wife...
And the only thing
I still can't help but crave
Well, it's the cuddles
My Mary gave."

Baldy is admittedly lonely ("A man needs a partner.  A helpmate.  That's why God made man and woman"), but shows no desire to even consider finding someone else.  Mary was that partner, that helpmate, and with her gone, that part of his life is over.

Robbie too can't completely be with the woman he loves - but in his case, it's because the woman in question is married.  Adultery isn't that shocking in 2010 America, but in 1960s Ireland, it was scandalous, if only because much of its population was Catholic.  Robbie, knowing full well that his transgression must tarnish Alfie's opinion of him, rushes to defend himself.  "Are you gon'to judge me, Alf?" he challenges his friend.

"Tell me I'm a sorry sight?
Are you gon'to say that
Confession will set me right?...
No one's going to tell me
What's proper to do-...
Poems won't teach you
What life's about,
Or how it feels
Lovin' someone who can't
Walk down the street with you!

This is my life.  This is who I love."

Mrs. Patrick, the woman in question, does not seem to take Robbie's feelings for her as seriously.  When Robbie says he's "glad someone knows...It shouldn't be like this.  I love her and I want to marry her," she brushes it off, insisting that "He'll meet someone his own age and forget all about me."  As someone who is breaking her loyalty to her husband, Mrs. Patrick doesn't put any faith in Robbie's professed loyalty to her.  Whether or not she's right, what matters now is that Robbie believes he loves her, and is not about to apologize for the affair or end it because somebody now knows.

Finally, Alfie learns by the end of the piece to be loyal to himself.  After his secret is out and it looks as though his friends have turned against him, Alfie does not try to deny who he is or plan to leave Dublin behind.  Instead, he vows to embrace life - as who he is, on his own terms:

"You thought you knew a bit of life
You had no clue.
You took a step, the world came crashing
Down on you.
And what you feared the most of all happened,
Well, now you've come to...
Welcome to the world...
For life is clearly something
That I can't rehearse
It's dangerous and beautiful
And free as verse,
And rather than avoid it,
It's high time I stood in its way..."

Without friends, without theatre, without his privacy, and without the man he loves, Alfie doesn't give up.  He knows who he is and has experienced the cruelty the world sometimes doles out to people like him, but he still can't be anything other than himself.

Alfie's loyalty to who he really is does not go unrewarded.  At the end of the show, he finds himself surrounded by his friends - including Lily - and everyone is ready to find a new theatrical home for his troupe after church officials banned them from the parish hall.  "Life goes on and so must we artists," points out out of Alfie's actors.  And with his friends' faith in him - and his faith in himself - Alfie certainly will.

Alfie and his bus passengers in Londons Union Theatres A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE
Alfie and his bus passengers in London's Union Theatre's A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE

To license A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, visit its MTI show page. Discuss this article and view photos of the original off-Broadway production on its MTI ShowSpace page. Click here to read about a recent production of A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE in London.